Thursday, October 06, 2005

The Sabermetrically-Challenged L.A. Angels
Are All About Numbers  

My sentence is for open war: of wiles more expert,
I boast not -- John Milton, "Paradise Lost"

If there's a consistently acceptable team that appears to spit in the eye of every one of us red-blooded sabermetric enthusiasts, it's gotta be the L.A. Angels. And that, compaƱeros, holds a great lesson or five for those who care about strategy in endeavors beyond baseball. The Angels are a great example of an organization finding its own model for success based on metrics and designs of its own.

The Angels are as good a team as the New York Yankees. They won the same number of games during the regular season, (95, each with 67 losses). The Angels' Pythagorean W/L number (.569) was about two games better than the Yanks' (.558), a wash. As of today, the Halos are knotted 1-1 with the Yankees in their playoff series. It would be difficult to find two teams with outcomes so close to each other. But the Yankees follow informed baseball wisdom, while the Angels violate it, at least on the offense side.

The truth is not well known. Perhaps I should say I didn't know it before I was given a generous chunk of time with their skipper, Mike Scioscia. Scioscia, in case you doubted it, has little love for sabermetrics types. He's very courteous about it, but he's equally opinionated. It's not that the Angels reject the numbers -- far from it. They use numbers few others do, to their competitive advantage. Before I get into the numbers they DO use, let's briefly explore three stats that are strong indicators to those of us who adhere to the sabermetric faith.

Walks are good. But the Angels don't walk, ranking 12th of 14 teams in the AL in non-intentional walks (UBB), trailed only by the floppy, boneless Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the chronically underperforming Detroit Tigers.

American League teams, 2005 regular season, ranked by UBB.






Boston 1036 645 34 611
NY Yankees 982 635 41 594
Oakland 812 536 22 514
Texas 1100 494 20 474
Cleveland 1086 499 33 466
Toronto 951 483 18 465
Minnesota 973 484 49 435
Seattle 978 466 50 416
Baltimore 893 444 31 413
Chicago Sox 996 433 27 406
Kansas City 1001 423 23 400
LA Angels 846 440 51 389
Tampa Bay 985 409 25 384
Detroit 1026 382 24 358

Teams with .500 or better records have the creamsicle-coloured highlight, teams with losing records have the white background. The eyeball correlation is pretty good for this year, like most. The Angels get the fewest walks for any team with a winning record. The Angels belie the natural trend of low-walks --> losing teams. What's interesting is that their manager, Mike Scioscia was a walks guy. In the sweet spot of his career, he had really solid on-base percentages relative to his league, combining better than mean walk rates and much lower than average strikeout rates.

Year Ag Tm   G   AB    R    H   2B 3B  HR  SB CS BB  SO   BA   OBP   SLG   TB   SH  SF IBB HBP
1984 25 LAD  114  341  29   93  18  0   5  2  1  52  26  .273  .367  .370  126   1   4  10   1
1985 26 LAD  141  429  47  127  26  3   7  3  3  77  21  .296  .407  .420  180  11   3   9   5
1986 27 LAD  122  374  36   94  18  1   5  3  3  62  23  .251  .359  .345  129   6   4   4   3
from Baseball-Reference.Com

Scioscia, as it turns out, loves on-base percentage. It's just that he doesn't have it on his roster. The Angels don't reject on-base average as something valuable. They just don't have an abundance of it, and therefore try to distill and preserve every iota of value out of the amount they do have of it. The theory being that if you can get a runner on first in any manner, get the runner into scoring position in any manner, optimal or not. Get runners moving with run-and-hit, steal bases, shake up the defense.

I'll get to Scioscia's words in Part II, after presenting the other Angel attributes that usually accompany losing teams. Like stolen bases. In post-1992 baseball, stolen bases are usually the bailiwick of losers.

American League teams, 2005 regular season, ranked by SBs






LA Angels 159 56 0.74 47
Tampa Bay 151 48 0.76 55
Chicago Sox 137 66 0.67 5
Seattle 102 47 0.68 8
Minnesota 101 44 0.7 13
NY Yankees 84 27 0.76 30
Baltimore 82 37 0.69 8
Toronto 70 34 0.67 2
Texas 66 15 0.81 36
Detroit 66 28 0.7 10
Cleveland 62 36 0.63 -10
Kansas City 53 32 0.62 -11
Boston 45 12 0.79 21
Oakland 31 22 0.58 -13

The Angels lead the league in stolen bases, in post-1992 baseball usually the sign of a lame team. BUT...they are effective with the tactic. I've color-coded four clusters, and the Angels share the high-volume, high-success cluster with only the strugglish Rays. The Chisox have a lock on the high-volume, low-reward "cluster". The Yankees and Texas take on the mantle of high-quality without high-volume that's probably the most comfortable for generic sabermetric thinking. And Oakland, Cleveland and Kansas City are both low-volume and high-cost in their approach.

A number of the Angel stolen bases occur when the manager has called a run-and-hit play where the batter either didn't make contact or allowed the ball to go by based on the belief the runner had the base stolen. I can't tell you how many, but trust me, the Angels know the number and success rate.

The numbers the Angel management are passionate about, and which may be the factor that provides them an affordance for success in lieu of on-base, are batting w/runners in scoring position (RISP) and batting with runners in scoring position with 2 out (RISP2). In these, they excel, compared to the American League and compared to the Yankees. And they especially excel against the way the produce at the plate relative to their other at bats.

From Stats, Inc., here the AL composite team batting profile (the average):

AL Composite
               AVG   AB   R    H  2B 3B  HR RBI  SB  CS TBB   SO  OBP  SLG
Total         .268 5586                                      983 .330 .424
None on/out   .272 1396 ---  380  73  8  47  47   0   0 100  230 .326 .437
Scoring Posn  .272 1485 ---  404  78  8  46 582  23   5 179  269 .347 .428
ScPos/2 Out   .248  644 ---  160  33  3  19 213   9   1  84  123 .342 .398
Close & Late  .254  867 ---  220  40  4  22 112  14   4  86  175 .325 .385
And here are the numbers from a good offensive team, the Yankees.
               AVG   AB   R    H  2B 3B  HR RBI  SB  CS TBB   SO  OBP  SLG
Total         .276 5624 886 1552 259 16 229 847  85  27 637  989 .355 .450
None on/out   .288 1356 ---  390  66  5  57  57   0   0 134  230 .359 .470
Scoring Posn  .272 1490 ---  406  63  6  67 623  31   8 203  288 .360 .458
ScPos/2 Out   .233  679 ---  158  24  2  23 216  10   1 107  138 .344 .376
Close & Late  .260  734 ---  191  35  3  25 121  10   0 107  142 .357 .418

And here are analogous figures from the Cherubim:

               AVG   AB   R    H  2B 3B  HR RBI  SB  CS TBB   SO  OBP  SLG
Total         .270 5624 761 1520 278 30 147 726 161  57 447  848 .325 .409
None on/out   .263 1402 ---  369  74  6  41  41   0   0  97  201 .315 .412
Scoring Posn  .296 1400 ---  414  70  7  37 566  39  13 159  198 .361 .435
ScPos/2 Out   .279  663 ---  185  35  3  14 232  25   5  85  103 .364 .404
Close & Late  .270  923 ---  249  36  3  22 115  30   3  88  154 .336 .387

They also track data on individual runners taking extra bases (going from 1st to 3rd or 2nd to home on a single, from 1st to home on a double). Opportunities, successes, times thrown out. They value, as they do in base stealing, both quantity and quality.

In spite of their 1960s offense, the L.A. Angels focus on RISP and RISP2 in their coaching. They follow the numbers and keep updated reports on hand. The part of their offense that really ticks is their keeping runners in motion (opponent defenses, to their detriment in the general case, in motion) and their batting with runners in scoring position.

While they don't bat as well, in general, as A.L. averages, they are comparable in RISP and RISP2. Their consistent contact means fewer strikeouts, and not-striking-out is an advantage with RISP and even more with RISP2. The relative value of the walks they're missing have lower incremental value than those walks would have in other situations. Their putting the ball into play and successfully getting hits with runners in scoring position in RISP2 situations results in an offense that while less effective overall, produces a higher rate of two-out runs relative to the league average and a better offensive team such as the Yankees.

If you buy into the morale theory of rallies (that two-out rallies can suck the wind out of an opponent) opponent morale would also be a contributing factor in the Angels' success. But this is a team that focuses on RISP and RISP2, very aggressive baserunning (beyond just base stealing), preaches it to their prospects and rosters, and gets it fom them. I'm not sure it's the most durable approach, but I'm sure it's working.

As long as the team's pitching stays solid and the defense remains a bit above average, the Angels' success with keeping their running efficient and keeping batters delivering in RISP2 and RISP situations, they are a team that can compete with any in the American League. That's in spite of playing against known advantages.

This won't be a popular thing to say, but the Angel approach on the batting side is pure Moneyball. That is, the economics side of the argument, not the specific attributes the Athletics front office found undervalued. If multiple mid-budget teams are pursuing high-OB guys and steering away from the speedy contact hitters, there will develop an overlay in speedy contact hitters. There will develop and overlay in talent who aren't so speedy but are trainable.

Any organization in a competitive situation can watch the demand for specific kinds of resources correct and scoop up overlays, BUT...

But, it's all about execution. The Angels don't aim for just anyone with this pattern, they look for individuals that fit into the overall pattern. They train them in the minors to focus on the specific skills the team is looking for, they keep repeating the objectives on the big club. Bengie Molina (slower than an glacier in winter) has to be as alert about taking the extra base as Chone Figgins. Everybody is on board, everybody knows the mission and gets the resources they need to execute on it.

The Angels approach can work in any organization.

  • Pick a viable strategy not everyone is following.
  • Create a thorough plan to optimize the potential success of that strategy.
  • Train everyone top to bottom.
  • Focus on what you can do, and don't pretend you can do what you don't have the skills and resources to do.
  • Keep the messages clear and omnipresent.
  • Track events and follow trends.
  • Give constant & consistent feedback to individuals, both positive and negative.
  • Give everyone the resources they need to succeed.
  • Never stop preaching the content of the plan.
  • Never stop preaching the content of the plan.
  • Never stop preaching the content of the plan.

While the strategy doesn't have to be optimal, it does have to be viable. But the difference between success and failure is more a function of structuring design and execution and following up with the right training and monitoring than it is a function of the strategy being the best. And please note, I highlighted content of the plan. Preaching rah-rah exhortations is very cool, but it's the content of the strategy and its execution that's key. In most large organizations, management preaches motivation insetad of content because (i) it's easier -- they don't even really have to come to understand the content themselves, and (ii) they underestimate their staff's ability to understand. If they hire the right staff, and refine the explanation well enough, and come to understand it themselves, staff will understand and internalize it -- ultimately better, because they will be the ones carrying it out.

The Angels prove you don't need the best strategy to get into the playoffs (or win a World Series), just a viable one with great execution and delivery.

In my next entry, I'll run some of the transcript of the interview with Scioscia, so you can hear what he says in his own words. I need to thank the Angel media relations staff for being exceptionally helpful and to Scioscia for being so generous with his time and thoughts.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

free website counter